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BLOG: OptaPro interview with Simon Kuper

Simon Kuper is an acclaimed author, and winner of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year in 1994 for his book Football Against the Enemy. He currently writes for the Financial Times, and co-authored Soccernomics with Stefan Szymanski, a book that examines established opinions on football and challenges them using data.

The second edition of the book has recently been released, and an additional chapter that has been added looks at advanced football analytics and their increasing influence on the sport. As part of this chapter, Simon visited the Opta office in London and talked to various members of the Opta team.

OptaPro caught up with Simon recently in order to find out how the latest edition had been received, and how his views on analytics in sport had developed over the course of his research for the book.

How has the 2nd edition of Soccernomics been received? Do you think it has prompted a greater debate around data in football?

I think there is more debate. I think people are starting to realise that, for example, when watching Euro 2012 there is a lot happening that you don't know about in terms of how teams have used data to plan their matches - in my opinion Germany were the best example of that.

I think people are increasingly realising that there is a 'game behind the game'. In the new Soccernomics we talk at great length about the strategies clubs use (especially in England) and tried to add to that debate.

In the time between the two editions, how radically has the landscape changed?

In the firstSoccernomics, there wasn't a chapter on the use of match data. I had a sense that a bit was being done by clubs but it was in a very early stage. Clubs are quite secretive about this, so it was often hard to know what they were doing.

Partly because the first Soccernomics got some response from people inside football clubs, I was able to meet various key people, including Billy Beane who contacted me after the first Soccernomics appeared. I got to know him somewhat, and we got on well, and he then introduced me to people at Chelsea and other clubs with whom I've been able to discuss what they do in greater depth.

Do you think there is a negative perception of data within sport? Especially since the departure of Damien Comolli from Liverpool?

To popular perception, yeah. But Liverpool haven't given up on data within sport - they're still trying to do a 'Moneyball' within soccer, and other clubs haven't given up on it either.

I do think the fact that Liverpool are arguably yet to make a significant breakthrough so far shows that this aspect is still in its infancy.

We're probably at a stage where baseball was 20 years ago where we're still trying to work out what works. For example, my personal take on Andy Carroll is that, from the stats, they worked out that he's the most effective at heading in crosses. So then you buy people who are good at putting in crosses.

However, my sense is that the data shows - and in a few years' time we'll probably have a much greater understanding of this - is that crosses are not an efficient way to score goals. It's therefore not an effective strategy and I'm sure this will become clearer as we understand the data better.

We're still wrestling with what a Moneyball of soccer will be, and over the next ten years that will progress by the season - and has done so over the last couple of years.

Do you think there is a geographical bias in the acceptance/embracing of football analytics?

Absolutely. England and Germany are in the front row: with the English, I think it's because they are closest to the US. A lot of people within English football follow what goes on in American sports, they like baseball, they've read Moneyball and they are closest to making that leap. If you are in Spain or Italy you probably have less connection with America.

Germany has a tradition with sports science that goes back to the early 20th Century. In 1920 they set up a Higher School for Sports Science in Berlin which later became the school in Cologne which now supplies data to the German team. So for the Germans, the idea of using data to improve football tactics is not new. It's in the line of what they've been thinking about in sports science for nearly 100 years.

That's why I think England and Germany are in the lead. Also bear in mind that their clubs have money.

How about MLS?

I gave a talk about the book in Seattle with Sigi Schmid [Seattle Sounders Head Coach] and he said that three years ago when they were starting the club and drafting players, they used stats to guide their draft. He felt that was the difference between Seattle and the other clubs in their expansion draft - they were able to use the data to guide their draft and select better players.

Do you think data in football could widen the gap between the leading clubs and the rest?

No, I think that it's cheap enough that smaller clubs can use it as a way of catching up. You can hire a team of statisticians and give them everything they need for less than the cost of a reserve full-back. If I were running a small club in the Premier League or in any league, that's where I would spend my money.

Do you think we will get to a stage where teams are actively altering their tactics because they know the opposing team have the facilities to carry out advanced analysis on them? Are we approaching a situation where game theory starts to come into play?

I was just looking at some stats for Euro 2012, and they showed that the country with the most skewed flank of attack was Holland - they attacked from the left-wing much more. To a degree, some of these things could be spotted by traditional scouting, but data will definitely help reinforce that.

If I were looking at the numbers, I would see that Holland would normally attack from the left wing, which is obviously very helpful. If I were Holland, I would realise this, therefore giving us the opportunity to change our style of attack.

Finally, do you think the advances in data analysis in football will be matched by a greater appetite amongst fans?

I'm just reading a Dutch football magazine that has two pages dedicated to stats from Euro2012. That just didn't happen two years ago.

Soccernomics 2nd Edition by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski is available now.



Posted by Simon Farrant at 10:17


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